Lenfest/AP Democracy Demo Day: Four takeaways and a call to action

Twelve news organizations and election integrity groups shared initiatives to strengthen civic engagement and confidence in election results.

By Hayley Slusser and Joseph Lichterman

May 15, 2024

An election worker places a sign that says "Vote here/aqui" outside a polling station at a fire station in El Paso, Texas.
An election worker places a sign outside a polling station at Fire Station 3 on E. Rio Grande Ave in El Paso, Texas, just before polls open Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. AP Photo/LM Otero

For funders seeking to invest in election news coverage and voting integrity efforts in advance of the 2024 election, arguably the best time to have committed support would have been months or years ago. But even with Election Day less than six months away, there’s still a meaningful opportunity to make a difference. 

This sense of urgency was among the principal themes of The Lenfest Institute/AP Forum on Journalism & Democracy, a gathering of more than 100 journalists, foundations, technology executives and election-integrity experts in early May at Microsoft’s New York conference center.   

There are initiatives all over the United States already underway or in urgent need of capital in time for this election cycle. Organizations presented 12 projects at the Lenfest/AP Forum, a daylong “Democracy Demo Day” that provided a platform for leaders in local news and nonpartisan election services to share their work with one another and with prospective funders. 

Here are insights from 12 organizations on the vanguard of this election cycle: 

1. Create new channels for voter information  

It is a common misconception that low voter turnout is due largely to apathy. Several of the Democracy Demo Day presenters said that communities hunger for useful information; they often just don’t know where to turn.  

Capital B, the nonprofit news organization reporting for Black communities across the country, sold out the first convening of its “Black Political Power Tour” within 24 hours. The seven-city tour is creating conversations around the 2024 election — both local and national — on the issues in which Black voters are most interested.  

INN’s Rural News Network texting service, which provides news to individuals living in rural areas that do not have strong internet access, gained 800 subscribers shortly after its launch earlier this year, with a 90% retention rate.  

The Marshall Project, the nonprofit news organization covering the American criminal justice system, has been expanding with multiple local newsrooms. In Cleveland, they partnered with Signal Cleveland to create a guide to local judicial elections — important down-ballot races that receive little news coverage and for which 30% of otherwise active voters in earlier elections did not vote.  

The Marshall Project addressed this challenge by creating a digital voter’s guide and promoting it in places where it could reach voters — through partnerships with local media, community organizations, and on-the-ground outreach led by community members. It placed ads and distributed flyers in places like barbershops, food banks, and bus stops near the county courthouse. 

News organizations can’t just assume they know what readers want or that everyone in their communities is already familiar with their work. Ensuring people have access to reliable information means creating new channels of information access to meet prospective voters where they are. 

2. Leverage trusted messengers  

One of the most effective ways Demo Day presenters discussed disseminating information is through trusted messengers — community leaders whom audiences either already know and trust or can easily relate to.  

For Louisville Public Media this meant engaging people like Aaron Jordan, a local businessman and influencer who also runs Louisville’s Juneteenth Festival, to help promote its nonpartisan election guide. In addition to candidate profiles and information on how to get to the polls, the guide included commentary from Jordan on civic engagement and his work in the city.  

“Now Aaron has been able to amplify his work and get it out to a wider swath of the community. Tanya (a voter) has been able to find information that she trusts. She passes that information on to her dad, and even got to attend a community event where other folks were talking about these same issues,” said Gabrielle Jones, LPM’s vice president of content. 

For groups seeking broader reach beyond an individual community, a trusted messenger could be someone on social media of a similar demographic relaying information using a format and language that is familiar. 

Military Veterans in Journalism is a nonpartisan organization working to inoculate the military veteran community from extremism and disinformation. To help newsrooms understand how to reach these audiences, MVJ works with a variety of partners to provide accurate and fact-based reporting on issues affecting military and veteran communities and to counter false and extremist narratives that undermine public trust in our nation’s institutions. MVJ also works to get veterans employed in journalism through its mentorship and fellowship programs. 

Pulso, a nonprofit media outlet serving Latinos across the United States, is expanding their reach by creating state-specific social media channels in Texas, Arizona, and Florida to counter mis & disinformation using local influencers as trusted messengers.  

3. Look beyond voter stereotypes 

Election coverage is rife with voter stereotypes — false presumptions based on regional, ethnic, or economic background. An array of organizations is working to dismiss these broad-brush assumptions about voters to help better serve their communities.  

The Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY, which provides training and support for Black, Asian, and Latino media organizations, called mainstream media to account for treating voters of color as monolithic, single blocs, offering little nuance when discussing what voters want. 

Similar sentiments were echoed by organizations like Capital B, noting that Black voters are often assumed to be Democrats despite data suggesting much more diverse opinions and voter behavior. Rural voters are sometimes seen as a largely white single voting bloc despite nearly 25% of the rural population being people of color. 

CCM Asian Media Initiative Director Kavitha Rajagopalan said that community-based media organizations are uniquely positioned to disrupt those stereotypes since they’re already embedded in and trusted by these communities. Organizations with a larger reach like the INN Rural News Network can counter stereotypes by exposing audiences to a variety of topics to give voters a fuller picture.  

“We are trying to combat filter bubbles. Creating just another algorithm that’s highly personalized, that’s going to drive outrage or emotion isn’t the end goal,” said Jonathan Kealing, INN’s chief network officer.  

4. Build new partnerships between journalists and other election-integrity disciplines 

Journalists have effective allies committed to maintaining a healthy news and information environment. Nonpartisan election officials, pro-bono attorneys, experts in background checks, technologists combatting disinformation, public-opinion researchers, and more are also dedicated to ensuring a fair and equitable electoral process through the dissemination of accurate information. Our journalism and our audiences can benefit from much greater cross-disciplinary collaboration.  

The Bipartisan Policy Center think tank trains election officials across the United States to help them use the news media and other communications channels to build trust in the electoral process.

Voting Rights Lab, a nonpartisan group that analyzes election-related legislation across the country, works to demystify the election certification process for the public and is eager to share its insights with news media. 

The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press is providing pro-bono legal services to news organizations as well as working with police departments to educate them on how to interact with journalists most effectively at public protests.  

NewsGuard, a company working to counter mis-and-disinformation, is producing an AI Election Safety Suite designed to prevent AI from repeating or amplifying falsehoods by rating source materials to help large language models pull from reliable sources. 

Sunlight Search and MuckRock are partnering to train newsrooms and provide tools on filing Freedom of Information Act requests, helping reporters utilize public records and conduct background checks on candidates in a systemic, structured way.  

A call to action   

Journalists have strong allies in the fight for truth and fair elections.  

If you are a funder seeking a more impactful role in the 2024 election, the time to get involved is now. Please reach out directly to any of the 12 presenting organizations to discuss their work and funding needs. We at The Lenfest Institute are happy to make introductions — email us at [email protected] or [email protected].  

It’s not too late to make a difference in this election cycle — and never too early to start thinking about 2026, 2028, and beyond.  

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